I used to be the slightest bit skeptical of the story Grant Achatz tells of the famous pheasant and burning oak leaf course at Alinea that reduces nostalgic diners to tears. That was until I witnessed the phenomenon myself at the first incarnation of Next. After my mate took one of the opening bites of the night—from a slice of brioche piped with foie gras torchon and garnished with roasted mustard seed-apricot jam—she held back her head, closed her eyes, and misted up.
Sometimes after she eats fatty duck liver she has nightmares about gavage, so at first I thought she was hallucinating a doctored PETA video.
But then I took one of my first bites: a minispoonful of creamy truffled custard and brandade, finished with black truffle shavings and scooped from a scalped eggshell perched on a gleaming antique silver service piece.
And that's when I started hallucinating. For just a minute I was a gouty, monocled Gallic bloater with a wine-stained cravat, greedily slurping it up and impatiently awaiting my turtle soup.
Turtle soup, or tortue claire, appears on at least 20 set menus in Georges Auguste Escoffier's Le Guide Culinaire, usually as a second or third course. Le Guide—as you know if you've read just a few of the thousands of stories written about Next in the year before it opened—is the culinary equivalent of the Ten Commandments. And Escoffier is the turn-of-the-century chef who modernized French cooking to the extent that it's recognized as the academic foundation of Western fine dining. What Achatz, partner Nick Kokonas, and executive chef Dave Beran aim for with the first menu is an interpretation of a meal as it might have been eaten in the dining room of the Paris Ritz, where Escoffier reigned during La Belle Epoch.
It presents unique challenges to regular guests—and professional critics too. Kokonas's online reservation system requires everyone to purchase all-inclusive tickets in advance, and its initial glitches inspired a kind of web-based panic that hasn't totally subsided. Due to the intense competition for tickets the only ones I was able to secure were purchased under my own name, and therefore my usual presumed anonymity as a reviewer was out of the question. Maybe that's why I was greeted by director of operations Joe Catterson and offered a drink next door at the equally popular Aviary while I waited for my table (more on the cocktails in a few weeks). Apart from that and the silver, I'm pretty sure I was treated like everyone else.
What purpose does it serve readers to review food that will remain inaccessible to most of them, and will likely disappear forever in a few weeks anyway? Most of the the dishes on the eight-course tasting menu—served in individual portions rather than buffet style as Escoffier would have done it—have already been so heavily photographed and endlessly dissected that I wondered if it would really be possible to be surprised by them.
But I was. This heavy, exquisitely rich food is so far removed from current culinary practice it might as well be totally new again. And in some respects it is. Rather than a rote course-by-course analysis of each plating, it's more important to recognize the current menu at Next as both a museum piece and an innovation, dictated with relaxed informality by servers drilled in the historical context and technique of every aspect of the experience.
Each course is assigned a number said to correspond to a recipe in Le Guide, though in the English translations I consulted they almost never do, which lends a certain amount of mystery to the precise techniques involved. According to Beran that's due in part to many of them depending on several methods detailed in the book. Take the third course, supremes de poussin, a thin, flat, diamond-shaped piece of poached chicken precisely blanketed by its sauce, alongside two sections of poached cucumber stuffed with chicken mousse and wrapped in a thin skin of salt pork. It's a visually stunning plate of food—it looks like an cartoon face frozen in alarm—but it's drawn from three separate recipes, for the meat, the sauce, and the vegetable.
Despite that, it was one of the few courses that didn't flatten me with pleasure. One that did makes reference to an entirely different chef. Carré d'agneau consists of three fried onion rings balanced atop a stack of duchesse potatoes, lamb tongue rillettes, rare sliced loin, and a sweetbread, all situated in a pool of sauce Choron, the combination of bearnaise and tomato fondue named for a contemporary of Escoffier's. Served halfway into the meal, this tower of meat is the course that broke me, forcing me to admit that if I was going to make it through the night I'd need to stop consuming every last morsel, each smear of sauce, and every drop of wine paired with them—as much as it hurt to do so.
Sensorily, it's a merciless succession of rich dishes progressing from the platter of hors d'oeuvres, each one a tiny, meticulously constructed, powerfully flavorful bite—say, mushroom duxelles-stuffed leek or an anchovy-and-lemon-topped soft-boiled quail egg filled with liquid yolk. It seems surmountable but then comes the limpid turtle soup, followed by a sole paupiette with a mousse-filled crayfish head (suck it) sitting in a pool of dairy-drenched sauce normande that foretells trouble ahead.
At the sixth course—a family-style platter of pressed duck with a dish of feathery thin Comté-saturated potatoes dauphinoise—I began to feel more than a little ashamed of the food I couldn't finish. By the time a piercingly sweet Sauternes-style sorbet signaled the end was coming, and beet-flavored paté de fruits and pistachio nougat among the mignardises finished it, I was sad for an experience I'll never have again.
With certain dishes at Alinea, Achatz's goal is to evoke real but submerged memories and emotions in his diners. And those can be relived as often as one cares to pay for them. At Next, Beran's challenge is to stimulate an equally intense passion about a time and place diners have never experienced. And then it's gone.
At least there's the next menu to look forward to. Most diners at Next are offered a quick after-meal peek at the kitchen. During ours, at the end of the night's service, the chef was toting a copy of David Thompson's Thai Food, which many Westerners consider to be that cuisine's Le Guide Culinaire. "This is my bedtime reading tonight," he said. "Six weeks . . . six weeks to figure it out."
E-mail Mike Sula at email@example.com